The State of the Union Address is an annual speech given by the President of the United States, which is directed toward the current U.S. Congress. Even though we watch the speech on TV, it is not directly given towards us, it is directed toward to the Legislative branch of the government. However this is not to say that the topics spoken of in the address are not tied to the welfare of the people; they are directly tied to the state of this Country, topics that take precedent in the meeting envelope discussing the current situation of our country and the challenges that face our great nation. Furthermore, the president uses this opportunity to address his agenda for the preceding year.
As per outlined in Article II Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, the president; “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Although the language of the Constitution is not specific, by tradition, the President makes this report annually in late January or early February. Between 1934 and 2013 the date has been as early as January 3, and as late as February 12. While not required to deliver a speech, every president since Woodrow Wilson has made at least one State of the Union report as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress. Before that time, most presidents delivered the State of the Union as a written report.
Since Franklin Roosevelt, the State of the Union is given typically each January before a joint session of the United States Congress and is held in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol. When a presidential inauguration occurs in January, the date may be delayed until February.
What began as a communication between president and Congress has become a communication between the president and the people of the United States. Since the advent of radio, and then television, the speech has been broadcast live on most networks, preempting scheduled programming. To reach the largest television audience, the speech, once given during the day, is now typically given in the evening, after 9 pm ET.
Also, in recent decades, newly inaugurated presidents have chosen to deliver speeches to joint sessions of Congress in the early months of their presidencies, but have not officially considered them State of the Union addresses.
A Brief History
George Washington delivered the first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790 in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person, regarding it as too monarchical (similar to the Speech from the Throne). Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice despite some initial controversy. However, there have been exceptions to this rule. Presidents during the latter half of the 20th century have sent written State of the Union addresses. The last President to do this was Jimmy Carter in 1981. George Washington delivered the first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790 in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital.
For many years, the speech was referred to as “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”. The actual term “State of the Union” first emerged in 1934 when Franklin D. Roosevelt used the phrase, becoming its generally accepted name since 1947.
Prior to 1934, the annual message was delivered at the end of the calendar year, in December. The ratification of the 20th Amendment on January 23, 1933 changed the opening of Congress from early March to early January, affecting the delivery of the annual message. Since 1934, the message or address has been delivered to Congress in January or February.
The Twentieth Amendment also established January 20 as the beginning of the presidential term. In years when a new president is inaugurated, the outgoing president may deliver a final State of the Union message, but none has done so since Jimmy Carter sent a written message in 1981. In 1953 and 1961, Congress received both a written State of the Union message from the outgoing president and a separate State of the Union speech by the incoming president. Since 1989, in recognition that the responsibility of reporting the State of the Union formally belongs to the president who held office during the past year, newly inaugurated Presidents have not officially called their first speech before Congress a “State of the Union” message.
In 1936, President Roosevelt set a precedent when he delivered the address at night. Only once before—when Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to order the U.S. into World War I—had a sitting president addressed Congress at night.
Delivery of the Speech
Protocol of entry into House chamber:
A formal invitation is made to the President for each State of the Union Address.
By approximately 8:30 pm, the members of the House have gathered in their seats for the joint session. Then, the Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the Speaker and loudly announces the Vice President and members of the Senate, who enter and take the seats assigned for them.
The Speaker, and the Vice President, specify the members of the House and Senate, respectively, who will escort the President into the House chamber. The Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the Speaker again and loudly announces, in order, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, the Chief Justice of the United States and the Associate Justices, and the Cabinet, each of whom enters and takes their seats when called. The justices take the seats nearest to the Speaker’s rostrum and adjacent to the sections reserved for the Cabinet and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Just after 9 pm, as the President reaches the door to the chamber, House Sergeant at Arms stands just inside the doors, facing the Speaker and waiting for the President to be ready to enter the chamber. When he is ready, the Sergeant at Arms announces his presence, loudly stating the phrase: “Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”
As applause and cheering begins, the President slowly walks toward the Speaker’s rostrum, followed by members of his Congressional escort committee. The President’s approach is slowed by pausing to shake hands, hug, kiss, and autograph copies of his speech for Members of Congress. After he takes his place at the House Clerk’s desk, he hands two manila envelopes previously placed on the desk and containing copies of his address to the Speaker and Vice President.
After continuing applause from the attendees has diminished, the Speaker introduces the President to the Representatives and Senators, stating: “Members of [the] Congress, I have the high privilege and [the] distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.” This leads to a further round of applause and, eventually, the beginning of the address by the President. Customarily, one cabinet member (the designated survivor) does not attend, in order to provide continuity in the line of succession in the event that a catastrophe disables the President, the Vice President, and other succeeding officers gathered in the House chamber. Additionally, since the September 11 attacks in 2001, a few members of Congress have been asked to relocate to undisclosed locations for the duration of the speech to form a rump Congress in the event of a disaster. Though there is a rumor that many members of Congress are unable to be present in the chamber because while there are 435 members of the United States House of Representatives and 100 members of the United States Senate, the maximum capacity of the House chamber is about 448 seats, this is not the case. There are many more seats for observers.
Both the Speaker and the Vice President sit at the Speaker’s desk, behind the President for the duration of the speech. If either is unavailable, the next highest-ranking member of the respective house substitutes. Once the chamber settles down from the President’s arrival, the Speaker officially presents the President to the joint session of Congress. The President then delivers the speech from the podium at the front of the House Chamber.
In the State of the Union the President traditionally outlines the administration’s accomplishments over the previous year, as well as the agenda for the coming year, in upbeat and optimistic terms. Since the 1982 address, it has also become common for the President to honor special guests sitting in the gallery, such as everyday Americans or visiting heads of state. During that 1982 address, President Ronald Reagan acknowledged Lenny Skutnik for his act of heroism following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Since then, the term “Lenny Skutniks” has been used to refer to individuals invited to sit in the gallery, and then cited by the President, during the State of the Union.
State of the Union speeches usually last a little over an hour, partly because of the large amounts of applause that occur from the audience throughout. The applause is often political in tone, with many portions of the speech being applauded only by members of the President’s own party. As non-political officeholders, members of the Supreme Court or the Joint Chiefs of Staff rarely applaud in order to retain the appearance of political impartiality. In recent years, the presiding officers of the House and the Senate, the Speaker and the Vice President, respectively, have departed from the neutrality expected of presiding officers of deliberative bodies, as they, too, stand and applaud in response to the remarks of the President with which they agree. For the 2011 address, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado proposed a break in tradition wherein all members of Congress sit together regardless of party, as well as the avoiding of standing; this was in response to the 2011 Tucson Shooting in which Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot. This practice was also repeated during the 2012 address.
Why Does it Even Matter?
The State of the Union address matters because it is an opportunity for the current President of United States, to stand, and to address Congress and the American people. This is his chance to recount the effort he has made over the past year, (if this is second year in office) to improve the state of the country, and also to proclaim what his plan and vision for the future of the country is. You voted for the President, and by extent, Congress as well; so, shouldn’t we want to know what they are doing to look after our great country? If you do not approve of the current State of the Union, or the job that the President is doing, then you have a right not to vote for him in future elections. No matter if you are Democrat or Republican, whether you like the President or not; his policies and his administrative actions will touch most aspects of our lives. This speech is a way of communicating to the Congress and the people how the President’s polices and actions have either improved or hindered the quality and way life for average American citizens. Listening to the Presidents yearly speech is something, that in retrospect, will only take two hours out of the evening; moreover, it is something, that if we want to be informed citizens and voters, we take it very seriously.
Chris Lunt is currently a Freshmen at Southern Utah University and is a Fellow at the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service.
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